Brian Urlacher sports a strikingly different look these days.
Yet, beneath the new head of hair — thanks to a transplant undergone last year — and behind the new beard and mustache, he seems little changed from the kid who came to Albuquerque from Lovington and terrorized opposing offenses as a New Mexico Lobo in the late 1990s.
At age 37, he still loves football, loves Frontier Rolls, loves his home state.
“I have a ton of friends here, still,” Urlacher said in an interview Monday evening. “I love coming back.”
Urlacher’s new love is golf. He was in Albuquerque this week to play in a UNM Lobo Club Tournament and will return next month (June 15-16) to host a tournament of his own at the Canyon Club at Four Hills.
“The longer I’m away from football, the better I get at golf,” he said Monday at Sandia Golf Club, the site of the Lobo Club event. “I love to play. I’m so competitive at it, and the more I see improvement, the more I want to practice and get better.”
If practice didn’t achieve perfection for Urlacher as a football player, it came close.
Urlacher retired from football after the 2012 season, having played 13 years with the Chicago Bears as a middle linebacker. He was an All-Pro selection four times, played in eight Pro Bowls and is a virtual lock to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
At UNM, he was an All-America safety and led the nation in tackles as a junior in 1998. At Lovington High School, he was all-state in football and basketball and, as a senior, qualified for the state track meet in seven events.
ESPN Radio president Joe O’Neill, Urlacher’s friend and his partner in the planning of the June golf tournament, speculates that golf is a challenge for gifted athletes because 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard-dash and a 38-inch vertical leap (Urlacher in his prime had both of those, at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds) can’t help them.
Of Urlacher on the links, O’Neill said, “I don’t know his handicap, but I know he’s become what they would call a low-handicap level golfer.”
Perfecting one’s golf game takes time, and time was what Urlacher was looking for in retirement.
Urlacher worked during the 2013 season as a football analyst on Fox Sports 1, but then walked away. He wanted more time with family, he said, but also more time for golf — and for simply being a football fan.
Some football players, like the late Bears great Walter Payton, rarely watched a game they weren’t playing in. Urlacher, if he can help it, never misses one.
“I love football,” he said. “I’ve watched it since I was a kid. I look forward to Saturdays, Sundays, Monday Night Football, Thursday night (NFL) football, Thursday night college football, Tuesday nights when it starts late in the season for college.
“I just love football, man. If it’s on, I want to be watching it. I even watched high school football last year on ESPN sometimes.”
Another reason he didn’t stay with Fox Sports 1, perhaps, is that — for all his football acumen — he prefers not to watch with a critical eye.
“I’m a fan now,” he said. “It’s hard not to watch (the players in) my position, and watch certain things that I watched when I played. But I’m a fan.
“I like when teams score touchdowns now. I used to hate it when I played, but now it’s enjoyment. Now I understand why the NFL wants a lot of points and it’s such an offensive game.”
Despite a somewhat messy parting with the Bears, he remains a staunch supporter of the team and the organization. As a part-time Chicago-area resident — he and his family spend most of the year in the Phoenix area — he roots for the Bulls as well.
Cubs or White Sox? Sorry.
“Atlanta Braves,” he said, a loyalty he formed while watching Braves telecasts on TBS as a kid.
The Lobos? Of course. His alma mater has never lost a game, he noted, that he’s attended since his senior year in 1999. Most recently, he was on the sidelines for the Lobos’ 14-13 victory over Utah State last November — a win that propelled UNM to its first bowl bid since 2007.
His first stop when he returns to Albuquerque, he said, invariably is for breakfast at Frontier Restaurant on Central across from the UNM campus. The Frontier’s signature cinnamon rolls, he said, are irresistible.
His next trip back, he said, will involve the first golf tournament he has lent his name. Proceeds from the event are earmarked for the Salvation Army.
“I’ve been wanting to do something like this my whole career,” he said. “I just never really had the opportunity to put my name on something that I was gonna be able to support and be around and be there as much as I wanted to be there.”